Stanford’s own superhero

May 10, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

She doesn’t leap tall buildings with a single bound, wear spandex or even a cape. In fact, her diminutive stature would not make any bad guys soil their underwear, but make no mistake, they are very much afraid of her superpowers – so much so that they have made repeated threats on her life.

I first met professor Terry Karl (political science) at a panel discussion she was hosting with several students in 2010. The purpose of the panel was to share the results of its investigation into the plot by Salvadoran military commanders to murder six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989. Terry had obtained thousands of pages of communications between the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador and the Salvadoran military regime through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. By teaching her students how to scrutinize these documents, she and her student team not only assembled a chronology of what had happened, but also found substantial evidence that might eventually lead to a conviction of some of El Salvador’s top leaders.

While Karl is primarily known for her influential work on the global politics of oil, she is also an expert in international human rights. Terry spent a lot of time in El Salvador during that country’s brutal civil war, during which death squads commonly left decapitated bodies in places where they would be most visible and terrorize the populace. During the civil war, she worked closely with three of the murdered priests, including the rector and vice rector of the university, who were the leading scholars in Central America.

Few of us are aware of Stanford’s many connections to the country of El Salvador. Professor William Durham (Anthropology) wrote one of the most important books on El Salvador, “Scarcity and Survival in Central America.” Durham is one of the foremost experts on population and land use in that country and has consulted with the the government and continues to lead alumni trips and conduct research there.

Professor Tom Sheehan (religious studies) also spent a lot of time in El Salvador during the civil war while writing articles for the New York Times and other publications. He knew each of the priests that were assassinated and was particularly close to Rector Ignacio Ellacuria, a brilliant scholar and theologian. Since 2010, Sheehan has taught a class and led a trip to Central America that explores the political, religious and socioeconomic concerns of that region.

However, the most notable and yet least known connection is that days before the murders,convinced that the priests were in mortal danger, Stanford, at the urging of Professor Karl, offered them visiting professorships. Terry called the priests and urged them to immediately leave the country and come to Stanford.  A mere two days later, they were dragged from their beds and executed.

Once Karl and her students had assembled their evidence, she and several students flew to Spain, where they presented their evidence to the Spanish court, since five of the six murdered priests were Spanish citizens. As a result of this work, Spain has issued indictments against 20 Salvadoran military commanders who it believes are implicated by this evidence. One of those commanders, Colonel Inocente Montano, is currently in U.S. custody, and a judge has approved his extradition to Spain, though Montano is appealing that extradition order. If he is extradited to Spain, he will be the first person to stand trial for these murders and the highest-ranking Salvadoran officer ever criminally tried for human rights abuses in that country’s bloody repression.

Karl’s work over the years has resulted in three successful civil suits, deportations, extradition and criminal indictments, including the first jury verdict in U.S. history to find war generals guilty of crimes against humanity under the doctrine of command responsibility. She has been such a powerful expert witness that few defense attorneys dare to challenge her. But this has also made her the target of threats and intimidation. Nevertheless, like any good superhero, she is relentless in her pursuit of justice on behalf of those who have suffered, many of whom were her friends.

But this story is not over. Karl’s former students now staff major human rights organizations all over the world. She continues to get new cases and needs the assistance of students who want to work on real-life murder mysteries. These students are learning what it means to be global citizens and will become the next generation of superheroes. Thank you, Prof. Terry Karl.

– Rev. Geoff Browning, Campus Minister


Contact Rev. Geoff Browning at geoff.browning ‘at’

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